A theatre project unites autistic young people with their peers
In a room full of enthusiastic, engaged young people who had gathered to share a day of performance and song, we watched David and Emily strike up a particularly fruitful partnership.
David had been nervous at the start of the project - a group activity to build confidence through artistic expression. Emily was more confident and appeared to bring David gently along with her, ensuring he was involved in most aspects of the group work but also developing an important one-to-one rapport.
Their partnership was the happy result of a pilot initiative to improve understanding between children of different abilities: David has autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) whereas Emily is a typical teenager.
It all began last year when we at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester asked ourselves a simple question: why do we work with young people with ASD in isolation when we are trying to develop their personal abilities and confidence?
For five years we had been delivering a music theatre project aimed solely at students with ASD aged 10-14. But we felt that we could be doing more to dispel the social stigma of autism, fostering mutual awareness and empathy between young people with different learning needs.
You can't do that by keeping young people with ASD and those without apart, so we needed to get them together to collaborate. But how? And what were the risks?
For the students with ASD, joint working could have compromised the safe and supportive environment they needed to develop improved self-confidence and self-esteem.
As for the other teenagers, who themselves had challenging personal backgrounds, we needed to provide enough stimulation to develop their skills at the same time as giving them a new understanding of ASD.
Planning, communication and transparency were everything, because many people do not like surprises whether they have ASD or not. We worked with the two groups separately at first, developing performance sequences, musical scores and artwork, but spent significant amounts of time making them aware of each other's existence.
During this period, they communicated via their project leaders and were so inspired that they began sending personal letters to find out more about members of the other group. It was looking good, but if the plan failed when they came together, we would upset the equilibrium of not one but two groups of young people.
But the partnership of David and Emily was broadly indicative of the success of the project as a whole, with both groups growing in confidence. They combined seamlessly in January, before presenting a piece of shared musical theatre at the Royal Exchange in March.
The students' response to our leap of faith was to work hard as a collaborative company, to consider and respect each other's ideas and, importantly, to have fun learning about themselves and each other. The project was a reminder that having confidence in the resilience and attitudes of young people of all abilities is equally important.
Kate Reynolds is participation and learning manager at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester
The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.
Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.